You have to be of a certain age to remember when certain parts of your town were off-limits. Not so long ago, wandering into Anacostia, Cabrini Green, Compton, or Washington Heights was a very dangerous proposition. Today, visit neighborhoods that were war zones in the 80’s and you’ll likely be greeted by yoga studios and niche bookstores. More than 2000 people were murdered in New York City in 1990, and that’s just the murders that were documented. In 2019, that figure was 318.
Why are cities listening to calls to slash police funding or disband and reorganize police forces? Highly visible racist abuses are the proximate cause, but something else lies beneath the surface. We built a wartime, racist police infrastructure during a crime wave forty years ago. That effort never helped, only aggravating existing social problems while terrorizing minority neighborhoods. However, as long as white voters’ memory of those days loomed over policy discussions, any suggestion of criminal justice reform was a nonstarter. Those days are over. Cities are giving serious thought to scaling back or even dismantling their police force because to a remarkable extent, white people aren’t so paranoid about crime anymore.
Voters reaching their 40’s today have no memory of the urban war zones of the 1970’s and 80’s. For them, cities are expensive playgrounds. By 2016, suburbs had equal rates of violent crime and almost equal rates of property crime compared their big urban centers. When auto accidents and workplace injuries are included in safety metrics, rural areas are now more dangerous than cities. The age of the crime-ridden city is over. Nationally, violent crime has collapsed to levels not seen in decades, and New York’s murder rate hasn’t been this low since the 1950’s. This new generation of voters has no idea why police in their communities should be walking around like itchy-triggered Robocops spoiling for a fight.
We face far more danger from criminals looting our community from boardrooms, criminals our law enforcement infrastructure refuses to address, then from street crime. Prepare for big changes as budget-constrained cities re-evaluate their investment in police.
As crime surged across the late 70’s and 80’s, Americans constructed a paramilitary police force, granting them spectacular powers and life and death with little or no oversight. A racist cultural mythology of the hero cop at war with black urban degenerates accompanied and fed this policy investment. Before we’d fully deployed this new force, crime rates began a sudden collapse around 1992, a collapse that would see crime rates of violent crime drop by almost half in just a decade. While crime rates continued to fall, we accelerated the militarization of policing, building a racist mythology of a “thin blue line” of white cops protecting civilization from barbarians. By the time we initiated the 1033 Program in 1997 to funnel surplus military equipment to local police, crime rates were already in freefall, but we didn’t stop. Police budgets have nearly tripled since the 1970’s while crime continued to decline.
Our mythology of policing is in desperate need of an update. Today, your local police wander quiet neighborhoods looking like swollen marshmallows under military flak jackets and weighted down with tactical gear. Do they need any of this? America is unique in its number of gun deaths, with the wider population experiencing 11.8 firearm-related deaths per 100,000 citizens. That rate for police is 7.6. Police officers are roughly 25% less likely to die from a gun incident than the wider public. Last year, 89 police officers died in the line of duty in the US, half of them in accidents. The same year, police in the US killed more than 1000 people.
Policing is physical and dangerous, roughly as dangerous as construction work and machine maintenance. Policing is, however, far less lethal than groundskeeping and electrical work. Policing lags far behind America’s most deadly professions, like truck driving and the surprisingly dangerous business of farming. And of course, every American profession pales in comparison to the death rates in commercial fishing and logging, nearly eight times the death rate for police. More loggers and roofers died at work last year than police officers.
New York City’s police department has nearly 40,000 members and a $95bn budget. Of the 331 New York police officers who died in the line of duty since 1950, more than 2/3 perished of 9/11 related illnesses. In the past decade, 18 New York City police officers have died in the line of duty apart from those killed by 9/11 related illnesses (95). That figure includes deaths from heart attacks and automobile accidents. That’s fewer than the number of officers who died from C19 just this year (27).
In 1990, the peak year of violence in New York’s most chaotic era, not one police officer was killed in the line of duty. Meanwhile, since 2009 with crime rates continuing to plummet, NYC police killed an average of 9 people a year.
How essential is our investment in today’s police infrastructure? Our expectation is that without them criminals would run rampant. However, police in the US solve barely 6 out of 10 murders. Two out of every three rapists, in cases that are actually reported to police, are never found. Police in the US fail to solve almost 90% of burglaries. Meanwhile our President is a party-buddy of Jeffrey Epstein, who runs a crime family, and has been accused of dozens of sexual assaults along with fraud and money laundering while serving as a hero to America’s police. Under these circumstances, Americans are justified in asking whether their investment in police is fueling more crime than it solves.
Today’s police do their most irreplaceable and physically demanding work in interdicting crime – stopping crimes in progress. Your local police may not have a sterling record of solving crimes which already occurred, but they are the folks you count on to stop criminals, especially violent criminals, in the act. They also address, and cope with the emotional aftermath of the grisliest scenes of death and misfortune that play out in our communities. We need police. We just may need them organized and deployed differently. Police themselves might benefit from a reorganization. In a grim portrait of the reality of modern police work, far more police die from suicide than from line of duty incidents. Our approach to policing is not just killing our citizens, it is killing our officers.
Why has America seen a collapse in crime rates since the 1980’s? Lots of explanations get thrown around, from Rudy Giuliani’s infamous “stop and frisk” to cell phones and demographics, but none of them correlate cleanly with this shift. More importantly, none of these factors explain the way crime rates declined uniformly across the entire developed world at the same time, even as a large new population of young people reached peak crime age in the late 90’s.
So far, there’s only one explanation of our collapse in criminal activity that consistently holds up to scrutiny, the steep, sudden decline in lead exposure that began in the mid-70’s as the developed world moved away from leaded fuels. Average blood-lead levels have declined almost 90% since the 70’s, eliminating a toxin known to contribute to cognitive impairment, violent behavior and various degenerative illnesses. That tie between lead levels and criminal behavior has grown stronger with recent studies.
Chances are, the expensive, militarized police patrolling neighborhoods today were bulked up to fight a problem they were never going to be able to address. Over the past half-century, police have done less to contain crime in America than those pesky environmentalists.
As a slogan, “Defund Police” is a confusing and misleading, creating the impression that activists intend to strangle police departments with budget cuts rather than initiate real reforms. We will always need police in some form or another. However, recent efforts to dismantle corrupt police forces have shown promise. Camden gets particular notice for its success in rooting out the structural problems in a police force that probably caused as much crime as they prevented. Camden fired their whole force, rebuilding the organization from the ground up with greater emphasis on community engagement and assistance. Results so far have been positive.
Police departments loaded down with military equipment, patrolling our cities like an occupying army in a warzone, are contributing to more crime than they solve. They are a destabilizing force trained and emotionally primed to address problems we don’t have with methods that create unnecessary harm. It’s not personal. It has nothing whatsoever to do with the personal qualities of my friends or family members in the force. In the same vein, our problems with a dysfunctional police infrastructure won’t be solved by hiring nicer people. We have a structural problem which must be addressed at a policy level. With an old crimewave finally receding from our collective imagination, we may finally have the public will to build a smarter, more effective police force. And we may have environmentalists to thank for that.